The LSA is so large that for an instant it almost feels like a stateside base.
Settling back against a low concrete barrier, I readjust my body armor and quickly revise my opinion of the LSA.
No stateside garrison has ever required me to wear my body armor and Kevlar at all times.
As twilight falls, a glowing belt of stars emerges in the sky. It is mid-month, and the growing illumination from the crescent moon has blanketed the world in shades of gray. In the distance I can just make out the blue shadowed form of a C-17 Globemaster as it taxis out onto the runway.
At this distance, the massive cargo jet looks tiny.
Without warning, an F-16 Falcon rockets overhead, its engines screaming and completely invisible in the gathering darkness. As the whine of the jet fades into the distance, a second F-16 thunders thru the sky as it follows its wingman.
As the sound of the F-16 flight fades into the darkness, the Landing Zone becomes quiet once again.
Behind me I can hear Air Force Security Police having a quiet discussion as they guard the entrance to the Airfield. One of the airmen cracks a joke, and his friends subdued laughter echoes out over the airfield and blends in with the distant sounds of a United States military base at war.
Glancing down at my watch I realize that the flight is now 5 minutes late. With a grimace, I stare at the watch until the blue indigo backlight winks out.
It is not really a big surprise.
A sudden flash causes me to shield my eyes as a large truck turns a corner and approaches up the length of the runway. As it rumbles to a stop in front of me, I can see that the flat bed of the truck is piled high with rucksacks. A second set of headlights approaches and a bus pulls up behind the flatbed truck, packed full with soldiers.
The quiet night is suddenly alive with activity.
The bus disgorges a seemingly endless line of soldiers.
As they disembark from the bus, they cross in front of the headlights and their forms are momentarily backlit. As my eyes adjust to the harsh, almost unreal light cast by the halogen bulbs, their black silhouetted forms begin to take clearer shape.
In the darkness, their digital pattern uniforms have taken on a uniform shade of gray. On their left shoulders, they bear the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st Airborne Division.
The soldiers carry their weapons with confidence, and they are armed to the teeth.
Scattered among the M4 Carbines with holographic optics and ACOGS are sniper rifles, shotguns, and short-barreled Squad Assault Weapons. Every weapon seems to have been modified to fit the user, forming a more lethal package.
It is an impressive display of firepower.
As the soldiers walk around, I notice that more than half of them are wearing unit patches on their right shoulder as well as their left. More than half have served more than 30 days in a combat zone.
They look lean, fit, and hungry.
They must be Infantry.
As the soldiers mill around the rapidly emptying bus, some order begins to form out of chaos. A tall, dark, squad leader begins to shout, swearing beautifully as only a seasoned NCO can. Responding to the string of expletives, the soldiers immediately begin to form up into something resembling ranks. Over by the truck, a detail of soldiers begin to toss rucksacks onto the ground in front of the formation.
In the brief flash of light of a passing HUMMWV, I recognize a familiar face in the back for the formation.
Swearing softly to myself under my breath, I jump up and walk slowly thru the milling crowd.
Standing quietly on the tarmac is a tall First Lieutenant. His blond hair is cropped short, and he has a serious expression on his face as he watches the soldiers of his unit organize themselves. As I walk up and stand in front of him, it takes a half of a second for him to recognize me before his face breaks out into a grin.
It has been two years.
“Shit man, where the hell did you come from?”
I reach out and shake his hand.
He has a strong grip.
“Hey Chris, I am here taking care of some soldier issues, when did you get here?”
“We just got into country, and are heading out east.”
I smile in the darkness.
I am glad I ran into him.
A West Pointer, he and I were in the same platoon at the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. Two years earlier, during IOBC, I had rolled my ankle painfully on the last mile of a twelve mile ruck march.
In the humid Georgia heat I was carrying a 70lb load, and as my ankle started to swell, I slowly started to fall back from the rest of the platoon.
With a glance Chris had taken in the situation, fallen in next to me, and shortened his lanky stride to keep pace.
When I crossed the finish line a few hundred meters behind the rest of the platoon, I didn’t cross it alone.
It is a simple thing, but it is something that I will never forget.
Reaching over he takes a hold of my left shoulder and turns my uniform so that he can see my patch.
“What unit did you deploy with? How long have you been here?”
“I am still with the same unit I was with during IOBC. We got here about 5 months ago.”
He lets go of my sleeve and looks down.
“How are your guys doing? Holding up?”
“So far so good. Thankfully we haven’t lost anybody. We are trying to keep it that way.”
He nods in the darkness.
At this, I hesitate.
I wonder if he knows.
“Hey Chris, listen, have you heard about Mike Fasnacht?”
His smile falters and his face becomes somber.
“Yeah, I heard. He was killed in Tikrit.”
I nod my head.
1LT Mike Fasnacht was a classmate of ours at IOBC. He was friendly, smart, athletic, and always ready with a smile. He was one of the most technically and tactically competent soldiers in the class.
A friend of mine had been at Ranger school with him. He told me that when Mike had fallen down a steep ravine during the Mountain Phase, he had thought that there was no way Mike could have survived the fall.
Looking down the cliff face, he was astonished when he saw Mike standing down below and dusting himself off with a smile on his face.
That was Mike.
When I found out in an email that he had been killed by an IED, I saw his bright blue eyes and sunburned smiling face in my dreams for a week.
Quietly, I reply.
“It happened four months ago. Just after I got in country.”
Chris falls silent.
I almost hate to ask.
But I have to.
“Chris, have you heard about anybody else?”
The tall Lieutenant steps out of the way of one of his soldiers as he walks by with a rucksack on his back. Around us, the soldiers are distributing the heavy packs, and the pile on the flatbed truck has diminished noticeably.
Chris nods his head.
“Yeah, do you remember Smiley?”
“Sure, one of your West Point classmates, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, he was hurt by an IED a few months ago. I heard it was pretty bad.”
In the sky to the south I can see two Blackhawks begin their approach. They come in hard and fast, dropping rapidly out of the sky. At the last second, the lead bird flares its nose as it approaches and slows down, red lights springing on as it lands and taxis to a stop.
Landing behind the mass of soldiers, I see the crew chief jump out and unwind the black cable that connects his headset to the Blackhawk.
The NCO in charge of the pad runs up to the Crew Chief and shouts in his ear over the deafening roar of the helicopters engine. The crew chief answers him back and the NCO turns and after spotting me in the mass of soldiers, gives me the thumbs up.
It’s my flight.
I turn back to Chris.
“It’s my bird, I have to go.”
He nods his head and looks as if he wants to say something.
I hold out my hand and lean closer so that he can hear me over the scream of the two Blackhawks that have landed behind him. The soldiers in his platoon flow around us like ghosts as they begin to move out into the darkness away from the helicopters.
“Listen Chris, it was great seeing you.”
I fall quiet for a second.
I know I will probably never run into him again.
There is not much to say.
He holds out his hand.
I take it.
“Thanks Adam, it was good to see you too. Take care of yourself.”
“You too man.”
My soul feels heavy as I turn away. Breaking out of the crowd of soldiers, I sling my rifle and head towards the open door of the lead Blackhawk.
As I approach the open door, I close my eyes, and say a quiet prayer.
A prayer for Mike and a prayer for Chris.
A prayer for all of the soldiers I have known in the Army over the years.
A prayer for my brothers-in-arms.